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The Piano – The Ultimate Functional Art

by Fred Taylor (06/21/10).

The serial number of this piano is stamped into the soundboard and surrounded by the cast plate. It belongs to a Krakauer Brothers mahogany console made in 1946 using new post war plastic technology in the action.

The serial number of this piano is stamped into the soundboard and surrounded by the cast plate. It belongs to a Krakauer Brothers mahogany console made in 1946 using new post war plastic technology in the action.

Furniture is sometimes referred to as “functional art.” In the case of the piano, perhaps it should be called “functional art for art.” After all, the primary purpose of a piano is to produce music, one our most elaborate art forms, but then again, a piano is an imposing piece of furniture whether or not it makes a sound.

The idea of creating sounds by striking rather than plucking multiple strings appears to be a 12th-century innovation in the form of the dulcimer. In the 14th and 15th centuries, other keyboard instruments were developed, including the chekker, the dulce melos and the clavichord, all of which involved the striking of strings. Keyboard instruments that plucked rather than struck the strings were the virginal, the spinet and the harpsichord. The primary difference between plucked and struck keyboard instruments is the control of the dynamics of the sound by the player. The force used in striking the keys does not influence the sound a plucked instrument. The artist can control the dynamics in a struck instrument with more or less force used on the keys.

By the third quarter of the 1700s, substantial changes to piano construction attracted favor from even Mozart and Johann Christian Bach, who was the first to perform in public on the newly designed pianoforte. Pianos were imported to the Colonies and the first one built in America was in Philadelphia in 1775 by Johann Berent. Jonas Chickering started his firm in 1823, becoming the first American-born manufacturer and contributed the cast iron plate to piano technology. In the 1860s, Heinrich Steinway brought the big sound to uprights using the new cast iron plate and felt-over-wood became the standard hammer.

Pianos fall into two broad categories of form: the grand and the vertical. The grand is any instrument whose strings are horizontal, no matter its size and shape. So called “square grands” were popular in the mid to late 1800s, although they were rectangular. The traditional-shaped grand is offered in many sizes from the small and very small to the baby grand (about five feet from keyboard to tail) the medium grand (about six feet) and the concert grand (seven to nine feet).

The other form is the vertical piano, whose strings are other than horizontal. This includes the “cabinet grand” despite its string orientation, with its imposing height, over 50 inches, large soundboard and long vertical strings, as well as the studio, about 45 inches high, the console, about 40 inches, and the smaller spinet. The console’s internal action sits at the end of the keys, while the spinet commonly has the less expensive “drop” action where the hammers are below the level of the keys to save room and money. The vertical form has traditionally been the most innovative in following styling trends in cabinetry and some no doubt are acquired as much for the style as for the sound.

Musician, noted author and piano restorer and technician Arthur A. Reblitz divides the technology of pianos into three main groups: “antique” (1700-1830); “Victorian” (1850-1900); and “modern” (1900-present). Pianos of the late 1800s are also essentially the same technology as the pianos built today.

These same classifications also roughly parallel the styles of piano cases. The same technology of each period that produced other furniture also produced the cabinetry for the piano manufacturers. Rosewood veneer was the hallmark of Rococo Revival square grands, just as it was the sign of the high-end seating and cabinet work of John Henry Belter. You can even use the cabinet style and construction techniques to determine the approximate date of a piano just as you can with furniture. And just as with furniture, a patent date is NOT a date of manufacture.

But there is a better way. Unlike most items in the furniture trade, pianos are built with a unique serial number that can be used to identify its date of manufacture. The trick is that first you have to find the number, and then you have to correctly identify the maker. The number is normally found on the cast plate or the soundboard and is a permanently engraved or embossed number, not a stencil or a decal. Be sure you have the serial number, which will appear only once and not a style or cabinet number, which may be found numerous times.

Then you must identify the manufacturer, who is not necessarily the same as the name on the fallboard—the cover for the keyboard. This is because some manufacturers make private label brands for retail dealers and even for other manufacturers. These are called “stencil” pianos and the true maker may or may not be identified on the soundboard or plate. After you have found the serial number and correctly identified the maker, you can look up the information in the definitive source for information about pianos, the “Pierce Piano Atlas,” published since 1947 by Bob Pierce of Long Beach, Ca. it is now in its 10th edition. It has a short history and the historical sequence of serial numbers for hundreds of piano manufacturers, both European and American with some going back as far as the early 1800s.

Fred Taylor is a antique furniture Worthologist who specializes in American furniture from the Late Classicism period (1830-1850).

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Send your comments, questions and pictures to me at PO Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423 or info@furnituredetective.com.

Visit Fred’s website at www.furnituredetective.com. His book “How To Be A Furniture Detective” is now available for $18.95 plus $3 shipping. Send check or money order for $21.95 to Fred Taylor, PO Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423.

Fred and Gail Taylor’s DVD, “Identification of Older & Antique Furniture,” ($17 + $3 S&H) and a bound compilation of the first 60 columns of “Common Sense Antiques,” by Fred Taylor ($25 + $3 S&H) are also available at the same address. For more information call 800-387-6377, fax 352-563-2916, or e-mail info@furnituredetective.com.

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2 Responses to “The Piano – The Ultimate Functional Art”

  1. Janice Goldstein says:

    Mr. Taylor, wow! What a lot of information. Now I know about pianos. Thank you for sharing your expertise with all of your readers. I have a copy of your book, “How to be a Furniture Detective” and thank you for information I would not have known otherwise about antique furniture. Everyone should add a copy of your book to their library.

    Best to you and continued success!

  2. mr batista says:

    I only have an electric piano. Technically I have a grand piano, just nowhere to put it, so my parents get the pleasure of its company. One day I’ll have a place big enough for it. Even if that means putting a mattress underneath it and sleeping there.

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